Saturday, May 31, 2014

May 24th: "The Most Bulgarian of Days"

"Are you ready to celebrate Bulgaria in the old Communist way?" A 12th class student waved his fisted arm like an old American "gee swell" kind of way, grinning at his own joke. Most of the school was gathered at 9:30am on a Saturday morning in the school yard, milling around and talking, waiting for the signal that it was time to march. We would march to the center of the city and parade as a school with all the other schools from the town. Marching and flowers and parades and bands playing are left overs from communist celebrations, definitely.

"It is the most Bulgarian of days!" he continued. "Everyone is happy on May 24th!" And he looked to be right. Students were giving their teacher's flowers. Everyone was dressed to impress. There were lots of hugs and shouting. Anticipation.

May 24th is the Day of Slavic Languages. It is in honor of Saints Cyril and Methodius who first invented the Cyrillic alphabet (St Cyril... Cyrillic... get it? I don't know why Methodius gets left out). It's also become a celebration of all things Culture, especially education.

"In fact, I don't know why it isn't THE Bulgarian holiday, like a better Independence Day." I pointed out that this was because Bulgaria wasn't the only country who celebrated their language on this day; Russia and Macedonia are two other countries that Wikipedia lists as honoring the day.

But I can see why he thought that this should be the case. Lots of people had Bulgarian flags (with a few EU thrown in there). And the entire town was waiting in the center, ready for the show. Everyone was there. I'd never seen the square that full. We couldn't move until the school was given their turn.  Students from the language school, my school, in their restlessness, organized cheers of E-zee-ko-va! which means "Language".

Marching was infectious. I couldn't stop grinning. I moved through the crowd to see my students and to say hello. We exchanged enthusiastic hugs. Chesteet Praznik! Happy Holiday! And we were happy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014


The sun set in a pink and blue haze. The rest of the people heading into the stadium were dressed for action: bright green, red, and white, flags waving. We bought local Bulgarian beer in cans; lagers being the only option in this country. The police saw us drinking them as we presented our tickets and tried to find our seats. No one cared.

Our seats were in the last row at the top of the room. Music blasted and shook the court. A famous chalga dj ran the event. He was dressed in sports gear, but looked like the kind of man used to a slick layer of cologne and a silk dress shirt. His deep, gruff voice bellowed instructions for cheers. A lion with a beer belly ran around the side of the court, but it was the dj that ran the cheering. We all clapped and cheered and danced in our seats.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When The Guest Leaves...

... I wake up from sounds I was once used to, the creak of a door stop, the crackle of a taped picture coming loose from the wall.

... mornings are a one cup of tea affair.

... I eat cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, forgoing the elaborate meals that seemed so necessary a few days before.

... there is more water, less wine.

... the kitchen looks the same each time I enter it.

... more homework is graded.

... brainstorming stops being brainstorming and becomes a "To Do" list.

... writing is a sign of isolation instead of self-chosen creative time.

... I skip thinking.

... feels like I am forgetting something.

... or that something moved when I wasn't looking. 

... it's a lot lonelier.

... I wish they'd come back.

... I remember: I'm not meant to live alone.

This post is in honor of the several visitors who have come to see me this year. Each have brought a piece of joy and life into my living space and Dobrich home. Thank you for coming, especially those who came from the United States. I felt very loved.

Melanie Kammerer, Hannah Ray, Erika Sanders, Sarah+Hannah+Michael, Robbie.

Special thanks to Robbie who came twice, most recently during May.

My prom date who had to catch a bus instead.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Language Tricks: A Year in Reflection Part 2

            Describing Bulgaria plays tricks with language. So has my year, one long trick of language. The year has been a long game of language differences (literal and metaphorical), complex grammars without a handbook that you only learn by mistakes, like that card game Mow.
            For example, my students and I had an interesting cultural moment on the night rain after the last BFL tournament, one where we did not get sleeping compartments. We were in two compartments and sat up all night. During a fun party game around midnight, a student said, shocked, “Miss Dana! Where are your shoes?” I had taken off my boots and was moving around the train in my thick wool socks, hadn’t thought a thing of it. My feet didn’t smell. My Bulgarian teacher and friend, Rosi, explained on my behalf. “It’s an American thing. It isn’t strange to go without shoes in America.” The student nodded, shocked, trying to understand. I’ve always liked going barefoot or with as little shoes as possible. I thought this was a description of Dana. I had no idea that the option to have this preference was a deeply American thing.
            These kinds of things can be hilarious and fun to discover. Over time, they can also contribute to a sense of isolation, of being the Other, such a blatant experience being very new for me.
            There were also moments of deep connection where language, literal and metaphorical, did not get in the way.
            Each of these language moments played out in different ways through my year. From them, I learned a lot about myself and about cultural adjustment.

Lost in Translation
Like Banging Your Head
I didn’t always know the right questions to ask to get the help I needed. I didn’t always realize I needed help. This was the worst thing.
I wish I had asked more questions, assumed less. Realized how little experience I’ve actually had in highly structured and stratified environments. The rules and norms are opaque to me. I’m used to just making things work, but that skill is only useful where you understand the quiet norms of your culture.
1)   Administration upkeep
2)   Classroom Norms. Do I go for the mentor/friend route? Do I try to teach complex thinking and lots of assignments? How legitimate am I allowed to be? Do they want me to be? Questions I never fully answered.
3)   Bulgarian Language. I felt inadequate in learning Bulgarian. I took lessons since November but feel like I haven’t gotten very far (that is nothing about my teacher, who was wonderful and kind and a good friend to me in every way).
4)   Lonliness. This was the biggest bane of my year. I’ve had to grow a lot through being alone and feeling lonely. Remember the loneliness cake, long time blog readers? Yeah. Lot’s of “cakes” this year.

What I’ve learned: Where things get lost are often the places where things might have gotten lost back at home. My own personal struggles are highlighted and exacerbated here. Struggles with communication and being part of institutional structures and helping the larger institution, not just my own creative ideas and schemes.

            I wrote this year. That’s more than the last few years post-college can say. And I like what I wrote. I like how dance and writing keep moving together for me. I like how both of these things were a “way in” for me on a deeply personal level.

            Dance is, of course, the language of my heart.
Unfortunately, teaching schedule prevented me from being at salsa lessons this spring. But I made it to a few local dances and enjoyed it very much.
            Folk Dance started in January. Everything is taught in Bulgarian. I just listen, watch, and hopefully catch on. I’ve loved going to parties and seeing hundreds of people participate in this together. Holding hands, moving to complex rhythms and beat systems, it’s just really cool.

            Since October, I’ve attended a small Bulgarian church in my town. It’s from the protestant tradition, which is my background. They do simultaneous translations through headsets. It’s been a grounding place for me.
            Having even a few friends felt like a huge accomplishment. I didn’t get to see my friends very often. The people around me work long hours and have very full lives.

            On a lunch outing with my students the other week, one student made the audacious claim that Fight Club was infinitely superior to Titanic. I don’t know how those two could even be compared but they were. Someone else replied, “What is your criteria?”
            I’ve learned a lot through BFL. I still struggle with debate structure but oh well. My kids seemed to have figured it out eventually.
One girl moved from her first practice of constantly stopping, turning read, and saying, “I failed, I failed,” to a calm, poised presentation on the problems with self-harm.
            Other students constantly impressed me with their leadership potential. One student has now volunteered to help the next ETA start a team and help with BFL leadership. Two students are eager to be part of the Student ambassadors. These kids are my pride and joy.
            Winning 2nd place small school division at the Kirjali tournament was a highlight.
            American Forensics League. A smash hit, I would say. The world is a better place for those poems and stories and chalga debates and a DUO of Lion King. Seriously.

Older teaching younger. Pass it on.

What I’ve learned: You need to be grounded.
1) Find the things that keep you sane. Maybe these are new things, a new food or hobby or hang out spot. Maybe these are buried deep in your life stories, like church is for me. Finding these places will affect the rest of your life in a new place.
2) Finding something outside of your “job” that can be your job. That can give you structure. Like BFL.
3) Things get better over time. I was a far better teacher in February than I was in September. Give the hard things time.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Do You Like Bulgaria?" A Year in Reflection: Bulgaria 2013-2014

The next few posts will be part of a "Year in Review" report I gave to the Fulbright Commission on May 16, 2014.  I will address the "internal landscape" context that shaped my year as well as some specifics on what helped me adjust and what ways I was limited in that adjustment.

 The pieces retain some of its "for presentation" content but is more essay than the presentation one could permit. Forgive its cross-genre and conflicting-audience issues.

What do you think of Bulgaria?

            We have each been asked this question more times than we can count. The new acquaintances in our train compartment. Teachers. Students. We have each seen the look of doubt and hope, the squint of the eyes. Sometimes, the question comes more directly, a thinly veiled guide to the answer they want: Do you LIKE Bulgaria? I am stuck between two polar answers. Yes. Or no. To which I always reply YES, I like Bulgaria. I can even say, truthfully, that I love it.
            But this answer does not satisfy me and only rarely does it satisfy the question asker. My students have started to say, “Yes but… you’ve lived here now. What do you think?” To these questions, I flounder for an answer and deflect with playful sarcasm.
            Yes or no does not do justice to the place I am supposedly justifying or affirming. Nor does it do justice to the complexity of my experience here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


I just got home from one of my favorite places in Dobrich: the ceramics shop. It's a little room in the Old Town part of Dobrich, the one rebuilt in 1976 as a model of old Bulgarian architecture and artisan work.

I go there a lot.

When there is someone in town, I'm always sure to take them by the shop at some point. They've purchased whistles and bowls and cups.

I'm the shop owner's favorite.

She gives me a hug and a cheerful zdrasti when I enter. She pets my hair and pours me and my friend a shot of apricot rakia from her village. Rose flavored turkish delight is a regular treat. It pairs well with the rakia. She asks how I am and I try to explain who my friend is: my sister, another teacher, boyfriend. She nods as if she understands, though I know I get my possessives mixed up and very likely called my colleague a man and my boyfriend a girl.

Rakia cups
Then the shop owner takes a bowl or up and raises it high above her head; she lets gravity work and adds some umph into the drop too, slamming the piece into the counter. I jump every time, even when I see her arm raised. "Very good, very strong quality" she says is strongly accented english. The bowl or cup is unharmed-- not even a scratch. The first few times I visited, I let out a surprised yelp each time. I finally learned to say Mojali, ctiga after the first slam. She knows that it scares me now and gives me fair warning.

The room is a tangle of baked clay, brightly colored, swirled blues and greens and browns. Someone has written DOBRICH, BULGARIA in black marker or paint in swirling letters on the plates and bowls. There is always some special find: a plate with a special color, an egg holder, ash tray, magnet.The oven is in the back of the store, behind a loose hinged wooden door. If I could fit out an entire kitchen with these dishes, I would.

My shopkeeper friend is part of another time, where artisans were the norm and businesses were the basic livelihood. In many ways, Dobrich is still on this economic structure, though it becomes less so with more agricultural brands setting up shop like Husqvarna and Bayer Crops. Her family makes beautiful things, everyday objects that I love to have around and use.

Through her craftsmanship, I've also had a friend. I'll miss her pottery slamming ways. I'll miss seeing her in the post office and our cheerful greetings. That's about all I can manage in Bulgarian before the complexity gets out of my depth. But it's enough.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Speech and Debate GoFundMe: leaving my heart behind

In less then two months, my year in Bulgaria will conclude.

I want to be part of helping some long term educational projects to keep going. 

I love speech and debate. It's been a surprising heart to my year. It became the space where friendship and good thinking and artistic work and deep reading and lots of laughter took place. 

Help me make this possible for future teachers in my role. 

This campaign is raising money for "Bulgaria Forensics League"